Why You Won’t Commit at Work, But Will at Home

We’re increasingly dissatisfied with our work environments, here’s why

I recently sat through a presentation by Dr. Nicole Stedman, a University of Florida professor specializing in the development of critical thinking. Her presentation was centered on the importance and development of critical thinking in healthcare. She closed her talk by highlighting recent business practices trending towards bringing emotional intelligence skills into the workplace. She referred to it as an effort to bring the “heart” back into the the business world, where the “head” has had dominion. I spoke with her after her presentation and asked her to elaborate on her final point, as there was something that had been nagging me: exactly when did we remove the heart from our regular business practices? Why, when our emotions and emotional intelligence serves us in almost every other aspect of our lives, did we treat the workplace as a heart-free environment? She theorized that in the mid 20th century, as US businesses began mimicking Japanese industrial practices, many large businesses also began adopting Japanese management philosophy, which is oft credited for being more rigid and de-emphasizing emotion in the decision making process.

Regardless of the historical context, it’s still intriguing that there are those that would actively debate that workplace environments should live so far separated from our personal environments. The very same emotional intelligence that encourages us to pursue a long-term romantic partnership or to build lasting friendships has no place in professional circles? Companies espouse the values of integrity and passion, but expect that their workers check their feelings at the door? Undoubtedly, professional workplaces are focused environments where people should prioritize the outcomes valued by their employer. But to say this can only be accomplished through creating a rigid, buttoned up environment seems drastic.

Traditional business practices may also explain why we’ve seen decreasing trends in the willingness of workers to commit to lifelong relationships with the companies they work for. If you take as a given that people structure their personal lives in a way that imitates the values and considerations they want made in their professional lives, then wouldn’t it seem reasonable that as the dissonance between those two environments grows, so too would the dissatisfaction from the work force? In turn, this would lead to more people exploring other opportunities to find resonance in these two disparate aspects of their lives.

There is an understood give and take that evolves from personal relationships that many professional ones do not manifest. When entering a lifelong romantic partnership, there is an implicit understanding that you will change and grow together as a cohesive unit, supporting and nurturing each other. There will be hard times, but you will strive through them together. In many cases, larger companies do not afford their employees this same level of empathy. You are expected to fit the mold that the organization has crafted for your particular skill-set.

Accepted business practices and philosophies revolve around the idea that the employee is meant to mold themselves around the organizational standards and vision, boarding the colloquial bus. And if you don’t like your seat on that bus, if the seat’s broken and the person you’re sharing a seat with has a bad attitude? Tough. Traditional, hierarchical organizations are not built to adapt to their employees and the way their employees may want to grow. Employees plan on leaving these organizations after a finite amount of time, because there isn’t an expectation that the company is willing to commit the time or energy to foster them within the organization. Perhaps the trend by the younger working generations away from the traditional workplace is more a reflection of their rejection of those work environments, and less a rejection of the work itself.

Consider this, the same concepts that build healthy, functioning personal relationships can also contribute to building organizational structures that truly put the employees first, as the building block of the organization. Companies should consider treating their employees as the other half of a healthy partnership. How often are we asking the questions that are important in maintaining healthy relationships: am I treating you the way you want to be treated? Do you feel that I support you? Are you committed to making this relationship work?

Organizations need not strive for anything outside of what any healthy marriage/partnership has already: respect, access, passion, alignment. The hard part is defining what this looks like in a large organization and how these dynamics would play out among supervisors and employees. The answer may be that we are looking at organizational structure entirely wrong. Are traditional top-down models the ideal? Or have we developed that model out of a failure to be clever enough to come up with better structures that support the work the organization needs to get done. If we can build functioning marriages, friendships, and families, then we can start to build healthy company foundations built around long-term commitments from our employees as we work to grow with them.

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